There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

About the author: Kikuko Tsumura was born in Osaka, Japan. In her first job out of college, Tsumura experienced workplace harassment and quit after ten months to retrain and find another position, an experience that inspired her to write stories about young workers. She has won numerous Japanese literary awards including the Akutagawa Prize and the Noma Literary New Face Prize, and her first short story translated into English, ‘The Water Tower and the Turtle’, won a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology recognized Tsumura’s work with a New Artist award in 2016. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, her first novel to be translated into English, was published by Bloomsbury in November 2020.

About the translator: Polly Barton is a Japanese literary translator. Her translations include Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki. She won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for Fifty Sounds. She lives in Bristol.

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job: A summary

A nameless young woman is looking for a job after a bad experience. She is seen through the arc of the book exploring five different jobs: checking surveillance footage; writing scripts for voice ads played on buses; writing copy for rice cracker wrappers; putting up posters; and working in a public park. Each of these jobs she finds through an employment agency where she tells the recruiter: ‘I wanted a job that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not.’

As she moves through these temporary jobs, she discovers aspects of herself and her relationship to work. In one part of the book the narrator says: “Rather than doing the kind of job where I’d be involved with lots of people and become a central pillar of the establishment, I was [told I would be] better off in a role that I could fulfill calmly and peaceably … and yet I couldn’t help but feel that this position was turning out to be different than expected.”

The book takes us on a journey through each of the jobs she reflects on work, her burnout from the job she had straight after college. We see her character fleshed out through how she reacts at each of these jobs and with her relationship with her co-workers. We see her navigate the everyday and yet are curiously waiting to hear what she will uncover about the job and herself. She spends her time thinking about work culture in general as well the ideas around what makes a job doable, sustainable and doesn’t badly impact her. Many parts of the book are long conversations with herself about working environments and the discoveries she makes within each of them. Sometimes it is about how involved she gets and others about the larger patterns she witnesses. The readers are taken along on each of these new jobs as she continues her search for the job that she will enjoy, will not be too stressed by and which she can do alone. Throughout the book we learn small and big things that are part of Japanese culture adding a lot of context and intrigue to the book.

We don’t learn till the very end about the nature of the job she had before that which sent her down this road. It is vague through most of the book and in many ways this remains the charm of this book. Taking the reader on a relatable ride about our work culture and the ways in which exhaustion can overwhelm individuals, about struggles around workplaces and navigating any mental and emotional distress from the tasks undertaken daily. Though she remains our central character, we find throughout others who may be asking some of the same questions she is – about what makes us hold onto a job and return to it, what kind of boundaries do we have between our work and other parts of our lives, and how do we respond to what individuals may go through at their workplaces. Or as she reflects: “Whoever you were, there was a chance that you would end up wanting to run away from a job you had believed in, that you would stray from the path you were on.”

Further reading:

Work Isn’t All Hardship: Talking with Kikuko Tsumura: “This is just a guess, but I sense that for some people work isn’t just a means of simply earning money, but something that symbolizes their ability, which is why when they’re unable to deal with it well, they experience that as a kind of shame. To give the example you mention in your question, you then descend to feeling that your friends are all there battling these formidable opponents, while you yourself are having trouble fending off far less impressive ones. I don’t think it’s either a good or a bad thing that our minds work this way—these are some of the natural ups and downs that happen when we perform a job, and is one of the kinds of richness of experience that work brings.”

Discussion Themes and Questions:

  • What were your overall thoughts about the book?
  • What did you think about the writing style of the book? What kept you engaged?
  • Which themes caught your attention? What did you connect with from your life story?
  • What does this book tell us about work and our relationship to it?
  • What are you taking away from this book?